Religious Liberty: Now You See It – Soon You Might Not

By Larry Page. Larry Page is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He is the Executive Director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council. For nearly a decade he served as vice president and staff attorney for the Arkansas Baptist Foundation. 

The scope of religious liberties in America is and has been shrinking; it’s a protracted process occurring incrementally, but happening nonetheless.  It’s taking place, because the courts, much of the entertainment and news media, a great deal of academia, other assorted secular progressives, and an ever-growing segment of the American people are yielding to the politically-correct dogma that passes for honest philosophical thought and dialogue.

The judiciary, and particularly the federal judiciary, has aided and abetted the trend toward the secularization of our nation.  It is one thing to amend the constitution and write new laws by means of orderly, proper, and constitutional methods.  It is quite another thing for judges to legislate from the bench as activist jurists instead of fulfilling the legitimate role of interpreters of the law.  We have been laboring for some time under the heavy hand of an activist judiciary.  This was foreseen.

This is a good place to reflect on something Thomas Jefferson said about the judiciary and where he feared it might go.  In a letter Jefferson wrote to William Jarvis in 1820, he opined the following:

To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy . . . . The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. [Emphasis added]


As if to underscore the prescience Thomas Jefferson displayed in what he said in the letter to William Jarvis, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist observed in a 2000 decision that the Court “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” Critics might say that Rehnquist was a conservative jurist and had a myopic view of the place religion and matters of faith had in the American way of life, and the critics would be wrong.  It was and continues to be as Justice Rehnquist described honestly and objectively.

To highlight some ways in which religious freedoms are being constricted, consider five recent cases handled by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an association of Christian attorneys dedicated to defending and preserving religious liberty.  Hundreds of other situations could be cited if space here permitted.

1) A second grade student at a public school in New Jersey was told that she could not sing “Awesome God” in an after-school talent show.  2) A pastor of a church in Arizona was ordered to stop holding meetings or Bible studies in his private home.  3) Five Christian men were threatened with arrest for sharing their faith on a public sidewalk in Virginia.  4) A Christian student at a university in Missouri was threatened with having her degree withheld because she refused to write a letter to the state legislature expressing her support for homosexual adoption.  5) A pro-life nurse at a hospital in New York was forced to participate in a late term abortion, even though her workplace had agreed in writing to honor her religious convictions.

Before going any further, it should be said that nothing here is to suggest that our nation should function as an ecclesiocracy, or one in which an organized, institutional religion or denomination rules.  Many people mistakenly use the word “theocracy” (which means God rules) to convey their opposition to a society in which the church rules.  No one is contending that any particular faith system, religion, denomination, or sect be given authority or power to make law or set mandatory policy and standards.  But what is being asked is the continued right for individuals personally and corporately as churches to practice what the first amendment guarantees – the “free exercise” of religion.

While “freedom of religion” is one of our fundamental, bedrock principles, its value would be near nothing if we did not recognize and hold to the indispensable implied right of “freedom from religion.”  Every human is possessed of a free will – adherence to a particular faith belief or holding to none at all is a choice available to everyone.  Coercion to accept and practice religious doctrine of any kind has no place in a free society.

What most reasonable people want is a fair and honest assessment of the principles upon which this nation was founded, recognition of the values which served as a foundation for those principles, and fidelity to the duly constituted and codified laws resulting from an application of those values and principles.  No one is served by a cheap “end-around” of constitutional provisions and codified laws by judges deliberately misconstruing interpretations of those provisions or laws or by a president’s or governor’s illicit use of executive orders and actions – both of which are usurpations of the powers reserved to the legislative branch or to the people themselves.

No serious discussion of religious liberty in America can be had without referencing the principles ensconced in the very first amendment to our federal constitution.  In its relevant part, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress [that can now be read “Government” since the U.S. Supreme Court made the Bill of Rights applicable to states through the application of the 14th Amendment] shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”  [Emphasis added]  

It is important to note that the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” is nowhere to be found in the first amendment or anywhere else in the constitution.  That sort of extra-constitutional principle was first used in the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Everson v. Board of Education, by Justice Hugo Black in his majority opinion.  Black was an Alabama Democrat and former member of the Ku Klux Klan; he was appointed to the court by President Franklin Roosevelt.  He actually appropriated the wording from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists in 1802, using the phrase to assure them that the newly formed federal government would not establish a specific denomination of Christianity and would protect religious freedoms.

There are two rather important aspects of the first amendment’s religion clause that many people don’t understand – and the misunderstanding has serious consequences.  First, some read the free exercise of religion part of the first amendment and conclude that it is the government that conferred or granted that right to the people.  The correct position is that government has recognized the right and acknowledged its importance, not that the government created the right and granted it to the people.

No less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson, along with his fellow founders, made it crystal clear where the rights of man originated.  In our nation’s birth certificate – the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson penned – he said eloquently:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  [Emphasis added]

Jefferson knew what most people know or should know.  God, not the government, confers rights.

The second misunderstanding that skewers the meaning of the religion clause is for many not a misunderstanding at all; but rather it is a deliberate attempt to misconstrue the intentions of the founding fathers and those who followed them.  They attempt to make the case that those men were guilty of hyperbole, overstatement, and clumsy phrasing, culminating in a failure to articulate how they really intended the republic they were creating to be essentially a secular culture that valued diversity and held no antipathy against nor any affinity for matters of faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the polemics practiced today one can try to easily refute and counter another’s argument with the assertions that it is built on opinion without proof, feelings without fact, and conclusions with only flimsy and circumstantial evidence.  The last half of this piece will be used to thwart any attempts to marginalize Americans’ religious liberties with such vapid accusations.  I will do so by using hard and irrefutable facts.

The following is a sampling, a mere fraction of some of the utterances, propositions, and acts of the founders of this nation and those who followed in their footsteps.  After even a cursory view of these things, no clear-headed, honest-thinking person could have even the slightest doubt about where these patriots’ sentiments were when it came to the importance of religious liberty and how indispensable to the American way of life they considered it to be. The items listed are in no particular chronological order nor are they in any rank designating importance.

Now, let me begin.  The first order of business for Congress in 1789 was to appoint chaplains in both chambers.  Since those early days, both the Senate and the House of Representatives open their sessions with prayer.  Our coins are stamped with the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

Congress inserted the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.  On the very day in 1789 that the First Amendment was approved, Congress asked President Washington to proclaim a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.  In his proclamation designating a National Fast Day, Abraham Lincoln said that “Those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”

 Each session of the U.S. Supreme Court begins with the prayer “God save the United States and this honorable court.”  The Ten Commandments hang over the head of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The words “In God We Trust” are found in the House and Senate chambers.  On the walls of the Capitol dome can be found “The New Testament according to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  In the rotunda of the Capitol is the figure of the crucified Christ.  Presidents conclude their oaths of office with their left hand on an open Bible, with these words: “So help me God.”

The phrase “Annuit Coeptis” (“God has smiled on our undertaking”) is inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States.  Under the seal can be found the phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “This nation under God.”  Leviticus 25:10, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto the inhabitants thereof” is displayed on the band of the Liberty Bell.

On the walls of the Library of Congress are the words of Micah 6:8: “He hath showed thee, O Man, what is good; and what doth God require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”  Engraved on the metal cap on the top of the Washington Monument are the words:  “Praise be to God.”  Lining the walls of the stairwell of the Washington Monument are several Bible verses.

At the opposite end of the Lincoln memorial, words and phrases from Lincoln’s second inaugural address reference “God,” the “Bible,” “providence,” “the Almighty,” and “divine attributes.”  The Jefferson Memorial quotes Jefferson in the following way:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty.  Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” [Emphasis added]

What is shared above is but a little of the evidence that religious liberty had a very special place of prominence in our nation’s founding, that it was considered indispensable, and represents an undeniable conviction that it’s diminution cannot possible redound to our benefit.  Any open-minded, honest thinker – one who is without a tainted agenda – can come to no other conclusion when faced with the mountain of evidence that exists for this premise.

There can be no better way to close this than by repeating the words of the Father of our Country and our first president.  George Washington said:

 “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  [Emphasis added]